Friday, September 24, 2010

Playing Ketch-up #1 (Get Low, Le Amiche, Tokyo Godfathers, The Other Guys)

And now kids it's time to play Ketchup... like erm, catch-up.  Ketchup... Catsup... Ketchup... Catsup.  Are you here to help me with my ketchup problem?  (Simpsons reference)

These are basically just a bunch of small reviews for movies that I saw either recently or a while back (not too far back, but just enough that it matters) that I want to cover here, mostly so I don't forget about them in time.


This dark-but-glad tale of an old, old man, Felix Bush (played by an old, old Robert Duvall) is a little too heartwarming when it should be really scathing, but such is its story about the quiet redemption wanted near the end.  Basically a hermit, Duvall's character is a guy living in a self-made cabin over forty years and something of a kind of dark legend in a small town in the South (at least I think it's the South, whereabout Tennessee I think).  He knows he's near the end, and he wants to prepare the funeral - rather, a funeral party.  Money is no object, as long as a it can be pulled off by a Chicagoan funeral director played by a usually-perfect-deadpan Bill Murray (he has lines like "I sold 26 of the ugliest cars in the middle of December with the wind blowing so far up my ass I was farting snowflakes into July"), and his assistant (a grown-up Lucas Black).  Meanwhile, Felix tries to reconcile with an old friend of his, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), and a dark secret from the past.

If you know how these movies go, you can guess when the secret is revealed... aw shucks, I'll say it, it's in the big final speech.  The film works like that, giving us some very fine actors in some fine period clothes and fine production design, though only Duvall, and to a lesser extent Murray and Spacek, have full-formed people to work with.  Felix does reveal himself to be more than craggily hermit, which is all well and good.  It's only with the final climactic speech that the film really gets redeemed.  There isn't much of a connection, er, catharsis, about Felix's relationship (or lack thereof) with the town itself, and only a little bit with a black preacher (very capable veteran character actor Bill Cobbs).  It feels like most of the characters- Black's mostly- are there to serve whatever is going on with the lead figure, who, as played in his usual emotional tact and perfect way of saying every line like it matters life-or-death by Duvall.

 It's a pleasant film, which is odd to note considering that it's about a man nearing the end of his days with a dark past unearthed and sins reopened (the opening shot, which is quite extraordinary with a house engulfed in flames and a figure running away from the house after jumping off the roof, is a key to this), but could have been more than just 'good' if it had more concern for its large ensemble.  As a showcase for Duvall and Murray and Spacek it's worth recommending.  As a really deep tale of loss and woe and death, there have been better.

2) LE AMICHE (The Girlfriends)

This is a little-seen 1955 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, shot before he really got into the sort of directorial wonderments of L'Avventura and The Eclipse in the 1960's.  In fact one has to have seen several of his films, if not an outright fan of his work, to appreciate that it's one of his films.  It's really a melodrama that is given a one-up from its soap-opera tendencies in its story by Antonioni's fluid camera style and the performances.  There are little moments- again if you know his work a little bit- where you can see the inklings of what would come in the prime of his career as an art-house theater master.  But if you're a newcomer to his work it works just as well, if not better, because of how it is told without pretense.

Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) is set to run a fashion salon.  She becomes apart of a group of fairly well-off late-20, early-30-something women after one of the girls, Rosetta (Madeline Fischer) overdoses on pills.  She becomes close to them, or close as she would want to be, and sees how close-knit they are - and, as girlfriends can tend to be, occassionally vicious in verbal ways, such as a scene on a beach that is shaky at best and volatile at worst - and also their romantic relationships.  One of them is an affable architect, Cesare, who becomes closer to Momina (the older one of the group), and Clelia becomes attracted to Carlo, Cesare's assistant, which brings up some class issues as he's not, shall we say, as "well-off" as everybody else.  Meanwhile, Rosetta tries to bring back some normalcy or just stability to her situation, but she falls for Lorenzo, a painter, who is already romantically involved with Nene, another of the girlfriends.

Their confrontation about the Lorenzo situation, between Nene and Rosetta, with Nene mostly talking, is one of the more startling things about the film.  Again, a lot of this could be construed as soap-opera stuff: she sleeps with him, he sleeps with her, she's jealous of her, she's spiteful of her, so on and so on.  But that one scene, where Nene tells Rosetta off, is powerful because it's not as over the top as one might expect.  It comes at a point in the film where there has already been some drama (again, the very wonderful beach scene, with its slight, subtle nod to the scenes at the rocky coast in L'Avventura), and it's a scene that gains its power from how simply Nene speaks about the affair and how she feels about it.  It's moments like that, or when Rosetta walks with her lover on a street and they talk, that make it so worthwhile as drama.  Antonioni casts the group very well, which helps, especially for Rosetta, who is played by Fischer as a fragile person but not so weak as to always be pushed around.  And the male actors are surprising in their sensitivity to their roles.

It's is one of the director's finer films, and a good introduction to his work if not by way of the sort of existential malaise of a La Notte or Red Desert then to the underrated attention to characters and emotions Antonioni can have when he's most focused, and in classic black and white no less shot by the great Gianni Di Venanzo.  It's like Lifetime for mature people, and lovers of 1950's-set Italian cinema (or, to put it another way, like a "chick-flick" version of Fellini's I Vittelloni).


In continuing my trip into the late Satoshi Kon's all-too-small body of work (four feature films as director and one television series that is MUCH too hard to track down), I now come across this film, 2003's Tokyo Godfathers, which I unfortunately missed when it was first released and was actually the first time I had heard of the director.  I was happy to finally come across a copy and pop it in... only to find that it was not at all what I was expecting from the director of such mind-benders as Perfect Blue and Paprika.  This is both good and not-so-good.  It's certainly not a bad film, nor one that is distasteful.  It's a sentimental piece of pap that has the ambition to the Japanese anime answer to It's a Wonderful Life: a Christmas story that is not necessarily all about Christmas that has supernatural (or "miracle") overtones, and goes sometimes into dark places.

The short of it: three homeless people, one a bearded guy with a family that he left behind, a transvestite who insists on being called a woman's name and is so flamboyant as to make Harvey Fierstein jealous, and a young runaway girl whose father is a cop.  They come across a baby abandoned in a dump where they dwell at night, and decide to take it to the police... well, not unanimously anyway, the transvestite wants to hold on to it and mother it.  But they come across some hijinks and problems along the way, including the woman who comes back to find the baby again.  I could go on about the plot, but it should only be the short of it not so that I'll reveal anything so surprising, but there is TOO much to try and reveal in a plot synopsis.  Like many anime films and series I can think of (on the action-side Dragonball Z and on the more adult side Princess Mononoke), the story can get complicated, if not impossible to follow.  In this case though it's a holiday family film (yes, family film, despite its dark corridors its meant for ma and pa and the kids sitting around the fire), and in the last fifteen minutes or so complications, coincidences and/or contrivances get piled on, leading up to a big chase scene up a building.

This would all be fine if the film itself didn't become so sentimental.  It's hard to take that in Hollywood movies, but with Kon, and he has the best intentions believe me, it becomes a tale so squishy that you can feel it slipping from your fingers.  It is pap, but not the kind of enjoyable pap that the original John Ford entertainer  3 Godfathers was back in 1948 (same premise, three men and a baby, but with the Duke in one of his best performances, but I digress it's good).  Here the characters end up being more of service to Kon's 'Wonderful Life' tale, yet this does come after some time developing them.  We get back-story, and later some contradiction to the back-story, and some visual aids such as a flashback to the transvestite's story as a singer who got in to a big fight with a heckler.

Sure, the film has beautiful animation.  Kon is one of the forerunners of Miyazaki as one of the greats in his time of modern anime in Japan, changing the game and surprising at many turns.  At the least Tokyo Godfathers is pretty to look at, a kind of urban fairy tale with lots of snow and harder-edged buildings and grit, with some blasts of big humor and some deserved heart.  If only the story didn't sink into its sappy moments so much - though for some this will be just the thing that will take them in, and I can't blame them.  Perhaps it's the Grinch in me.


This one I was relatively late to see, as well as review, and it's already on its way out of theaters.  To be sure, it's a Hollywood summer blockbuster action-comedy, so the only places it was playing last week were a few scattered theaters in New York City, which is where I saw it for a friend's birthday.  I was skeptical, hence not rushing out to see the film right away, as I was turned off ultimately by Step Brothers, the last big Will Ferrell comedy shepherded by usual director Adam McKay.  It had laughs but disappointed in ways that weren't there in Anchorman and Talladega Nights.  It just fell... flat in the juvenile humor department, almost in spite of the comic timing of Ferrell and John C. Reilly, which is always there.

So pleasant a relief, if not surprise, it was that The Other Guys turned out to be funny.  How funny it is, or how funny it will be for you, will depend on how much you can take of Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as on-screen cops.  But for my money it succeeded where Kevin Smith's Cop Out slipped; it takes on the conventions and stereotypes of the buddy-cop action-comedy movie, and does it a service by having funny lines, funny sequences, and (somewhat surprising) good action.  I hesitate to discuss the plot because it is the thing that is least effective, perhaps intentionally so.  All I can really report, or would want to, is that Steve Coogan plays a sort of shady Wall Street dealer who makes a bad deal, and owes some bad dudes (Ray Stevenson for example), and there's a series of diamond heists that are linked to his office.

So who to get on the case?  Why scene-stealers Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson of course, the hot-shot cops who basically are the guys who one would usually see paired up in these movies.  But they meet a rather unfortunate fate (I cannot describe it here, but it is one of the gut-busting moments of the year in terms of sudden, outrageous hilarity).  So, who could take over?  No one, really, except maybe Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg), a rather angry guy who got pulled off his usual detective work for accidentally shooting Derek Jeter (a fact he is painfully reminded of throughout the film), and, much less-so in terms of ambition, Allen Gamble (Ferrell), who works as an accountant for the cops.  How they get put together, or how they go about the cases, is only somewhat relevant.  The story takes some twists and turns but if you've seen one of these kinds of action-comedy cop movies you've seen them all.

The Devil's in the Details, and it's in this that Ferrell and McKay get it right.  True, some of the humor is pretty goddamn stupid, mostly with some of the physical gags like "Good Cop Bad Cop" that becomes "Bad Cop Bad Cop."  Working much better here is Ferrell, who dials it down a little from his usual man-child roles and plays an adult (!) whose running gag is that he is married to and keeps getting hit on by insanely hot women.  That is to Terry, Allen just sees his wife (Eva Mendes, very smoking hot) as "cute".  There's also a side-track to Allen's time before being a cop, when he was a don't-call-me-a-pimp-but-I'm-a-pimp days in college, nicknamed "Gator" and with a mouth full of gold teeth.

It's inspired feats and some really punchy dialog that keep things afloat, and that the film works this time- more-so than less-so- with the improvisational skills that Ferrell and surprisingly Wahlberg have on display.  They make a good team, and other supporting players like Coogan and Michael Keaton do their parts as well (Keaton especially as a lieutenant-cum-Bed/Bath/Beyond manager has a riotous running gag of saying lines from TLC songs without realizing their origins).

Lots of stupid fun to be had, and action that can be good on its own- i.e. scored to "Icky Thump" is a spectacular parody of a gun battle- or serving the comedy.  I laughed, and I know that if I saw The Other Guys again I would laugh again, and maybe just as hard in the parts I look forward to.  Sometimes, despite only a passable plot and a few cardboard characters, that's enough.

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